Career Education Reality #2: It Improves Academic Performance
In this series, we will be looking at several foundational realities of career-focused education in today’s rapidly changing economy. Today’s blog is about the second reality: why career education improves academic performance.
Career-focused education has long been considered a distinctly non-academic pathway, and it’s too bad. Multiple studies clearly indicate that participating in a career-focused program during the high school years not only increases on-time graduation rates, but also improves students’ academic performance. Why is this? What is it about career education that positively affects performance in traditionally academic disciplines? And, in light of the evidence, why is there still a false dichotomy between technical and academic learning?
A Changing Labor Market
As a field, career education is still battling the persistent stigma that it is only for lower-performing students. Some of this arises from the way these students were guided into vocational programs in the past, while their academically stronger counterparts were exclusively counseled to take the university route. But times have changed, and with the cataclysmic shifts caused by new and emerging technologies, automated processes, globalization, and an ever-changing workforce, today’s career education is vastly different from the useful but limited vocational programs of the past.
Today, human social and cognitive skills are in more demand than ever, as automation is increasingly replacing the low-skilled jobs in our workforce. Entry-level jobs today are quickly approaching the medium-skilled careers of yesterday. Career education, always with an ear to the ground for labor market changes, has been nimble to adapt and train young people for the occupations that can’t be automated or outsourced. Students are engaging their intelligence more than ever with the robust content and high expectations of their career education programs. But this is just half the story.
Making Academics Relevant
Career education improves academic performance not only because it has become more intellectually challenging, but also because it inspires students to do their best no matter what classroom they happen to be sitting in. It achieves this by bringing the most commonly missing piece to the education puzzle: relevance.
Lack of intelligence is not the reason that many students are struggling academically. Rather, they just don’t see the relevance of academic effort to their goals and desires in life. No dots have been connected between working hard in their favorite (and least-favorite) subjects and enjoying a desirable lifestyle in the future. Not only that, but many don’t even have a clear picture of what they want that future lifestyle to look like. That’s where career-focused learning can help.
A student who understands that a certain GPA is required to enter his desired profession will be motivated to do the work, earn the grades, and advance closer to his goal. Academic subjects then become less of a chore and more of a stepping stone to whatever career that student has become passionate about attaining. Career goals and passions are awakened through research and class engagement with the related industry (it also helps students weed out the options that they find aren’t for them). Career education can make the rest of education relevant.
Creating the Right Students
Rigorous technical skills may be the primary focus of career-focused learning, but that is not all it imparts. Beyond engaging the student’s intelligence and developing a valuable set of skills, dynamic career-focused programs also create engaged, committed, “right” students who will succeed in all disciplines because their innate curiosity and motivation have been roused. These students have been unleashed to perform at their full potential — and as the numbers indicate, they do.
Can lower-performing students enhance their academic performance by taking a career-focused program in high school? Absolutely — and so can students who aren’t struggling. Career education improves academic performance through both its own rigorous subject matter and the relevance it extends to all aspects of the educational journey. And I think it’s time we made that known.